In the later half of the 20th Century and the present day Marvel Comics has always prided itself on never marginalizing a particular group or ethnicity. We live in a diverse culture, and as Americans enshrine our multiculturalism and do not judge others based on their ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion or creed. However, like many long standing running publications, Marvel Comics (or rather its predecessors Timely and Atlas Comics) depicted visible minorities in ways that, for the times, were considered socially acceptable but by modern standards are considered to be offensive. The purpose of this article is to identify these ways and put them into a historical context, for the purposes of understanding them as such. Also we will take a look at areas where Marvel became a champion of civil rights and the historical contexts of those milestone moments.
Timely Era (1939-1950)
Prior to the United States' entry into World War II, the primary racial stereotypes were usually the depictions of individuals of African origins and Germans. African-Americans were often depicted with pitch black skin, large eyes, and bright red lips. They spoke in Ebonics and always participated in ethnic stereotypes such as playing the harmonica, singing Dixie Land Jazz, and eating watermelon. They always were depicted as carrying on menial labor tasks such as janitors, butlers, waiters, chauffeurs, and other service-level jobs. Notable stereotypical characters include the infamous Young Allies' character Whitewash Jones. In a historical context, these characters were fashioned much like Minstrel Show characters. These blatantly racist plays were popularized in the late 19th century, following the American Civil War. By the 1930's the character archetype was seeing a resurgence in American pop culture, notably in Disney Cartoons and other entertainment targeted at a younger audience. This depiction of African-Americans was phased out of texts around the 1950's,as African-American characters were mostly phased out of story-telling entirely until the 1960's. This was a result of the polarization of American society towards its views of the then-contemporary Civil Rights movement.
Africans (people native to Africa) were usually depicted as savages, cannibals, and as being extremely violent towards Caucasians who would invade their territory. Alternatively, some African tribes were depicted as being easily led by Caucasians who were usually revered with an almost god-like worship. Most notable among these characters was the golden age Ka-Zar who was referred to in early issues of Marvel Mystery Comics as a "White God".
It is noteworthy to identify that in the common terminology of the era, both African-Americans and African natives were referred to as either "Negros" or "Blacks". At no point in any of these texts were there any terms which were considered offensive racial slurs at the time. For the most part, African-Americans were depicted as good-natured people, albeit clumsy ones. There are a few rare exceptions with character such as the Ape and Oldow that were depicted as savage ape-like creatures and were depicted in a disparaging way as being ruthless killers. However, they were a very rare exception.
Germans during this time were mostly stereotyped as being Nazi stooges. With stereotypical names like "Captain von Spitz", "Admiral Achhimmel" and other terms/names which were parodies of the German language. Their manner of acting was mostly depicted as being bumbling, cowardly, and easily duped. Especially after America's entry into World War II. Historical figures such as Adolf Hitler and other high-ranking Nazi officials were often depicted as children having temper tantrums and engaging in childish behavior. Given the atrocities that were occurring in Europe at the hands of the Nazis, this is not an unwarranted judgement. On the same token, Italians, during their involvement with the Axis forces during World War II, were depicted as equally as bungling and cowardly. Their accents were mocked and spelled phonetically.
By 1942, following the Attack on Pearl Harbor and the start of war between the United States and Japan, there were many publications that depicted the Japanese in a very disparaging manner. Japanese characters were usually depicted as literally having yellow skin, being buck-toothed, having tiny eyes (usually pushed together closely) or wearing thick black-rimmed glasses. Phonetical word-play was often used, and there were often depictions in text balloons of Japanese "text", which were nothing but incomprehensible symbols. The pronunciation of the letter "r" to sound like the letter "l" was commonly used. Racial slurs such as "Jap" and "Nip" were frequently used and often Japanese characters were referred to as "Yellow Bellied". This was originally was a term used in the Old West to call out a coward, but found new usage during World War II following the Attack on Pearl Harbor as it was commonly agreed among Americans at the time that the attack was cowardly. Back-stabbing, or sneak attacks or referring to one as a sneak in a disparaging way had connotations associated with the Japanese. In a historical context, this all came as result of America's reaction to the attacks on Pearl Harbor in December of 1941. This depiction of Japanese characters was frequently used in war comics, and super-hero stories involving Japanese spies, or battling Japanese forces. One of the most frequent characters to fight the Japanese was the Sub-Mariner, who even went so far in Sub-Mariner Comics #6 as to disguise himself as a Japanese person by jutting out his top teeth.
Other notable racial stereotypes were the depiction of Chinese as being slant-eyes, wearing rice hats, and having their text written phonetically to match the stereotypical Chinese accent. As the Chinese were considered allies of the United States during World War II, the Chinese were always depicted as being defenseless and in need of constant rescuing from the United States. Conversely, Canadians and Alaskans (Alaska was under United States' control since 1867, but did not become a state until 1959) were frequently depicted as miners, lumberjacks, and fur traders, often speaking in thick French accents.
While homosexuality was not overtly spoken or mentioned in texts, there were concerns and fears of the public that such man-boy partnerships such as the Human Torch and Toro and Captain America and Bucky had homosexual undertones. In the later part of the 1940's there were introductions of female counterparts to these duos by way of Sun Girl and turning Betsy Ross into the female sidekick to Captain American called Golden Girl.
Atlas Era (1950-1960)
The Atlas Era saw many of the same depictions of World War II enemies (namely Japanese, German and Italian stereotypes), however they were more subdued and less-overtly racist.
This era took place entirely during the Cold War, and Communism was considered a major threat by the Americans and their government. The Soviet Union, Russians in general, and the Chinese, while allies of the United States during World War II, were now considered threatening Communist enemies. A lot of racial stereotypes were directed at these ethnicities. However, for the most part these people were depicted as espionage agents, feeding the Cold-War xenophobia that was rampant at the time.
African-Americans for the most part were mostly phased out of many of Atlas's publications. However their depictions were also somewhat stereotypical, albeit in a much more muted way than their depictions in the 1940s.
Many of the Western titles that came out depicted Native Americans as red-skinned savages who spoke broken English. That was a the time a common stereotype concerning the indigenous American people. This stereotypical depiction remained common until the end of the 1970's.
Marvel Comics - 1960s
At the dawn of the Marvel age of comics, the Civil Rights movement was in full swing in America. The civic-minded writing staff of Marvel eventually worked this into their stories. Initially, African-American characters were rarely seen in Marvel publications, but they slowly started making their appearances as background characters. Notably, they began appearing in Stan Lee and Steve Ditko's run of Amazing Spider-Man, being portrayed as police men and working for the Daily Bugle.
Racism as a form of violence first appeared in Avengers #32 in 1966 with the creation of the racist group the Sons of the Serpent (inspired by the real-life Ku Klux Klan) and the introduction of one of Marvel's most prominent African-American characters, Bill Foster the scientist who eventually became Giant-Man. It became a long standing editorial mandate that racism would never be glorified and would be often vilified. Racist characters were always depicted as being in the wrong.
Other prominent African-American and African characters such as Joe Robertson and the Black Panther also made their appearances in this era. Often these characters were depicted as successful men in their own right, having real careers, and being highly intelligent.
Shortly after his introduction in 1966, the Black Panther was briefly renamed the Black Leopard to distance the character from the real-life revolutionary leftist group Black Panther Party, which was highly controversial at the time. However this name change was quickly reversed as Marvel decided that any connections between the comic-book character and the group were a stretch at best.
Still marginalized were nationalities that were associated with Communism. Notably the Russians, the Chinese, the Vietnamese, and the Cubans. Usually characters from these ethnicities were depicted speaking in a phonetic stereotype. The worst of these cases was the representation of Cubans with characters such as the Crusher. These stereotypes were mostly in mockery of these ethnicities, due to America's standpoint against Communism. The offensive depictions were, however, much more muted than the depictions of the Japanese, Germans and Italians during World War II.
Meanwhile, the X-Men, due to being mutants and a minority population among wider humanity, began facing Anti-Mutant prejudice and overt racism. Their stories often served as a broader commentary on the nature prejudice and racism, and the dangers inherited by them. However these prominent themes of the series were still handed subtly and much less directly than their use in later depictions of the team.
During the 1970s in the United States, cultural trends included the popularization of Blaxploitation films and Kung-Fu epics. These films featured African Americans and Asian characters as protagonists, though their portrayals varied from being heroes and antiheroes to villains. These depictions were new to the American audience, who were used to films with mostly Caucasian casts. Marvel followed the popular culture trend by introducing many African-American, Chinese, and Japanese characters who were depicted as heroes. Old stereotypes were mostly replaced with modern exploitation elements.
Notable among the new characters were Luke Cage, Misty Knight, Shang-Chi and Colleen Wing. However stereotypical trappings from the 1970's era were rife among the characters, particular those who were African-American. This was usually reserved for villains such as the Hypno-Hustler, Black Mariah, and Mr. Fish.
Racism was still depicted negatively by Marvel. For the most part, racist characters were always depicted as bumbling rednecks, fools, or as super-villains.
Not only was there an emphasis against racism, writers such as Steve Gerber managed to tackle the issues of the radical movements active in this era, from both sides of the argument. Their stories reinforced a theme of peaceful co-existence and a strong anti-extremism message.
The 1970's were a time of great social activism and protest against the government, as the still-ongoing Vietnam War (it started in 1955 and ended in 1975) was increasingly unpopular with the citizens and political scandals such as Watergate led the public to disillusionment with the country's leadership and direction. The Marvel Comics staff were influenced by these movements, and their stories often reflected their ideas. In their stories, they often chose to champion the underdog and the marginalized. This added a dimension of humanity to their characters, a quality which Marvel's competitors in the comic book market could not always match.
The 1980's saw an introduction of even more ethnic characters into the Marvel Universe, without any overt racial stereotypes being perpetuated. As time went by, stereotypical depictions became more rare and more muted, although there were still some exceptions. Even previously marginalized Communist-affiliated (or formerly communist) nationalities were less harshly depicted, and the status of ethnic villains was no longer associated with their racial or ethnic origins.
By the 1980s, the scope and range of the Marvel Universe and its associated characters had expanded considerably. The setting of the stories and the cultural background of the characters was no longer limited to the United States. In an effort to add an air of authenticity to their "foreign" characters, Marvel creators were often doing their own research in real-life foreign conflicts, foreign ideas, and on religions and cultures around the world.
One notable discrimination of sorts was the depiction of homosexuality in comics up to this era, or rather the lack of mention. Some characters were hinted to be effeminate, queer, or bisexual, such as the villainous couple of Mystique and Destiny, but their status as such was not officially confirmed. The first attempt at introducing an openly gay character came in from John Byrne's Alpha Flight run. Alpha Flight #7 (1984) was an attempt to reveal that the character Northstar was gay. However, this was downplayed and only subtle hints were given. The character was not fully "outted" until Alpha Flight #106 (1992).
The 1980's also saw the full conversion of Mutants to a blanket minority group which struggles with discrimination. Uncanny X-Men #196 ,in particular, is associated with this turn in the story narrative, with writer Chris Claremont comparing the term "Mutie" as a racial slur to the term "N_gger".
The 1990s saw a mostly neutral depiction of races within the Marvel Universe, with stories often delving into taking down racist characters and promoting race relations and unity. Most racial story-lines in the early 1990s were centered around drug and gang culture, which was a recurring problem in the United States during the time, notably in the Los Angeles area.
The issue or race became a term of polarization in many of the texts, following the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11th, 2001. At the time in the United States, hot button topics were issues involving religious extremism, Islam, Muslims, the War on Terror, and various related themes. Marvel Comics staff and their stories were influenced by the new cultural climate. Notably Captain America Vol 4, Punisher MAX, and many of Marvel's Ultimate titles reflected or focused on such themes. The era also saw the introduction of new Muslim characters, such as the X-Man character Dust who wears a full burqa. Muslim extremists were often the target of Marvel's more satirical titles of the period, such as X-Statix.
Marvel's depictions of religious extremism was not only limited to Muslim characters. Radical Christian anti-mutant groups such as the Choir were introduced in the pages of the X-Men.
Homosexuality was fully out of the closet and embraced, with many diverse gay and lesbian characters introduced, adding more dimension for bigoted antagonists who faced Marvel's various heroes and supporting cast.
Marvel's Ultimate line reinvented some of Marvel's flag-ship characters as having different ethnic backgrounds. Such as their version Nick Fury, who was African-American.
Other social issues that were covered was the genocide in Darfur, depicted in Squadron Supreme: Hyperion vs. Nighthawk.